Florida’s higher education funding is ‘up for grabs’ in 2019, House chairman says

The PreK-12 budget will focus on students — not organizations, House lawmakers add.
Rep. Randy Fine chairs the Florida House Higher Education Appropriations committee in 2019. [Florida House]
Rep. Randy Fine chairs the Florida House Higher Education Appropriations committee in 2019. [Florida House]
Published January 10

Florida spends $12.8 billion a year on higher education, including $5 billion from state coffers.

That amount of money deserves close scrutiny, said Rep. Randy Fine, the Brevard County Republican who heads the House Higher Education Appropriations committee. And he put all interested parties on notice Thursday that such a review is coming.

"Everything in this budget is up for grabs," Fine told the committee at the close of a 35-minute introductory session. "Just because something has been happening for 30 years doesn't mean it should continue to work that way."

He was not talking solely about programs paid for by non-recurring revenue. All items will get attention, and could be changed, as the committee delves into how it uses taxpayer funds to help college and university students prepare for the world of work.

The committee reviewed current practices, and said it expected to receive recommendations from Gov. Ron DeSantis in early February. Then it will begin to put together its plan.

See the Higher Education budget committee documents here.

Members of the House PreK-12 Appropriations committee held a similarly short meeting, where they stressed their emphasis on assisting students, as well.

Both Democrats and Republicans invoked the language of school choice that has dominated Florida politics for the better part of two decades.

"I was fortunate to live in a lucky ZIP code," chairman Rep. Chris Latvala said, referring to his Pinellas County upbringing. "But there are some kids in Florida and communities throughout Florida that do not have the same opportunity. Those will be the kids that we will be fighting for and the kids that will have our full attention as we craft the budget this year."

Newly elected Rep. Susan Valdes, a Tampa Democrat and former Hillsborough School Board member, stressed her support for public schools. But she also repeatedly stated that she "strongly believes in choice," noting that "education is not a box."

Rep. James Bush III, a Miami Democrat and retired teacher, sounded a similar theme. He said the House must craft a budget that provides equal opportunities for every child, whether they attend public school or any other.

"One size does not fit all," Bush said. "We have to have an open mind when it comes down to doing what is best for the children."

That means not playing politics, he said, insisting that children must come before groups and organizations.

Rep. Byron Donalds, the Naples Republican who last year championed private school scholarships for bullied students, shared that view.

"Every child should have at their disposal the best education possible," Donalds said.

The committee did not discuss specifics as it conducted a brief review of the 2018-19 budget.

See the PreK-12 budget committee documents here.